Smartphones, tablets, smart watches and the like are incredible tools. For many of us, they have become essential parts of our daily lives, enabling us to be connected around the clock to all manner of useful services, alongside all the collected information in the world at the tap of a screen, or a quick “Hey Siri…”
However, these devices have a darker side. There has been much discussion in the media of the dangers of screen time, particularly for children. I was intrigued to read, in an article for the New York Times, that top executives in Silicon Valley keep their children away from the products that they themselves are creating:
Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks. Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads…
Research continues to show the extent of our addiction to mobile phones, whilst other studies find links between screen time and mental health problems. It is these concerns, among others, that have led us to hold fast to our ban on mobile devices at Churchill Academy; for main school students, mobile devices should not be seen or heard in the Academy at any time. We expect our students to be developing their social skills by having face-to-face conversations, and we want our school to be an oasis of calm away from the constant demands of notifications, group chats, news feeds and snapstreaks. You can read my previous post about our reasons for banning mobile phones in school here. And the message appears to be sinking in with our students: the winning team in this week’s public speaking competition prepared their presentation on the theme of phone overuse.
But what about when children are at home? How can parents manage and monitor children’s access to devices? I don’t think a total ban is helpful; these devices are superb tools for learning and entertainment as well as for communication. When children are travelling independently it is reassuring to know that have a phone with them if they need it.
I do, however, think that limits are helpful. Parents at our curriculum information evenings earlier in the year were keen to manage children’s screen time, but many said that they didn’t know how. Here are some tools that you might find useful in helping you in this rapidly developing field.
Apple: Families and Screen Time
The Apple iOS has family controls built in. It’s the system my family uses and I find the tools really helpful. It allows an adult to set up an account for children under the age of 13, and you can continue to monitor and manage your children’s accounts up to the age of 18. I use the Family Sharing feature so we can share subscriptions and app purchases, but within Family Sharing you can also use Screen Time to set privacy and content restrictions. The “Ask to Buy” feature means you can control which apps your children download. Within Screen Time you can use four features to set the right limits for your children:
- Downtime: you can set “downtime” for a specific period. During this time, only phone calls and apps that you choose to allow are available. The default is for Downtime to be set overnight, but parents might consider setting Downtime during the school day as well, to reduce the temptation to sneak a look at the phone in the bag…
- App Limits: you can set daily time limits for different categories of apps each day. For example you could limit social networking time, games time, or entertainment time separately and independently. When children hit their limit, they are locked out automatically. They can message you to ask for more time, and you can decide whether or not you want to allow it.
- Always allowed: in this area, you can decide which apps should always be allowed even if children have hit their app limit or if they are in scheduled downtime. This means that you can contact your children in an emergency – or they could contact you – providing you with peace of mind and allowing you to decide which apps children can use.
- Content and privacy restrictions: within this area, you can allow or prevent your children installing and deleting apps, or making in-app purchases. You can also decide which of the pre-installed apps your children are allowed to use. Finally, within “content restrictions” you can set age-appropriate limits for the music, films, TV programmes, books and apps your children can view and use. Most useful, I think, is control over web content to prevent children accessing adult websites. You can also add particular websites to your children’s devices which are always allowed, or never allowed.
Android: Parental Controls and Google Family Link
The Android operating system has similar controls to iOS, but they aren’t all built in. You can set up parental controls on Google Play, but if you want to stay on top of your children’s usage you need a separate app called Google Family Link. Family link lets you manage your child’s screen time in a similar way to Apple’s Screen Time, but it also includes a handy feature highlighting teacher-recommended apps to help your children use their devices constructively. As with iOS, you can also track your children’s location using Google Family Link. I’m not an expert on Android, but this handy “how-to” from TechAdvisor is a good step-by-step guide to setting everything up. There’s even a Family Link app for iOS so Apple users can monitor children’s usage of Android devices!
How much time is too much time?
As a Headteacher and a parent, I am concerned about the amount of time our children spend looking at a screen. I share those concerns about myself as an adult, and I am using Screen Time to control and monitor my own mobile phone usage this year! It is for each family to decide what the limits should be for their own children. These limits will depend upon the children’s ages, their maturity, and the level of responsibility and control they have shown they are ready for. However, I am completely convinced that there should be limits set, no matter how mature and responsible the child is.
These devices are fantastic – but being glued to them all the time cannot be good for us, and it is our responsibility to ensure our children get into good habits and develop a healthy relationship with their phones and tablets.